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Tune In to Uses of Intercom : New Models Can Become Home's Central Control


Want to reach out and touch people scattered throughout the house? How about an intercom?

Calling the family to dinner may be one of the lesser reasons for installing one. There are other useful applications: monitoring the room where a baby sleeps or a child is ill and talking to the person knocking at the door from anywhere in the house. Intercoms can also serve as a control center for the house.

The intercom's wall-mounted master control unit can operate household electrical systems, including the air conditioner, aquarium and pool pump. You can use the intercom's wireless remotes to control lights and appliances inside the house and out. You can tie the intercom into your burglar alarm.

At Ferrell's Electrical Home Center in Anaheim, owner Lloyd Ferrell said the NuTone Model IMA-4006 will handle up to 20 stations. It has a built-in AM-FM radio, and there's a cassette recorder on which you can record messages or record from the radio.

The 4006 also sells well at the Alarm Center in Anaheim, said representative Greg Plesh. The unit retails for $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the number of stations and the difficulty of wiring.

A typical system includes a master unit, six inside speakers, a front door unit and a patio speaker. Eight-inch speakers are the most popular choice because of their sensitivity in monitoring rooms.

The top-of-the-line IM-5006 offers the 4006 features plus more remote-control options. It also offers selective calling between stations, so that you can call one station without having to talk to the entire household (although Ferrell believes most buyers don't use this feature). An optional compact disc player and optional chimes that will play up to 10 melodies can be added to the 5006.

As if you were loading up an automobile with optional equipment, you can add capability to intercom systems. NuTone offers a video door-answering and surveillance system with a four-inch black-and-white television screen. The homeowner can tie as many as six video cameras into the system.

At the bottom end of the price range, NuTone offers the IM-2003 economy system. The 2003 will handle up to eight stations and two door speakers. Users can turn off the radio while retaining the intercom and chime functions.

NuTone offers white, brass, wood grain, black and other finishes.

The high-end intercoms offer sophisticated sound systems that don't require any floor space. The Broan Manufacturing Co. aims at the high end with its Broan Music Intercom Systems. Broan's top-of-the-line unit is the K1800 stereo intercom system, which features a compact disc player and a healthy 50-watt amplifier. For high-quality music reproduction, the K1800 requires a pair of full-size speakers in the room with the master station. These are usually built into the walls.

Reliability has been one of the intercom's weak points. Intercom installation has been one of those fertile fields for rip-offs by fly-by-night contractors, so be sure to look for a reliable installer. Ask the manufacturer or dealer to recommend an installer.

Intercoms must be wired to prevent electronic interference from other devices, and the wiring itself is a critical part of the system. NuTone and other companies require that installers use the manufacturer's wire, or the warranty is void, Plesh said. But electricians will sometimes use any wiring they have available, and the system never works.

Intercoms are usually wired while the house is being built.

"It's typically a new-construction type of product," said Laurie Brammer, a Broan representative. "It's not a real easy retrofit job." Installation takes longer in an existing because workers may have to lift carpet and open the floor. On occasion, they may have to tear into the drywall.

Built-in systems can also be difficult to upgrade, particularly because they are so wiring-dependent.

New technology may erode the market for intercoms. The homeowner may opt for intercom capability in the household telephone system.

Panasonic telephones are making a dent in the intercom market because they offer simplicity in installation and can be upgraded more easily, said Linda Atchley of Better Home Systems in Huntington Beach. The phones are also part of the home decor, not a separate and visible unit mounted on the wall.

Panasonic hasn't set out to develop a full-blown intercom capability, and the homeowner may have to sacrifice some features. Panasonic offers seven telephone models with intercoms.

The intercom market is growing because of interest in the home office market, said Randy Grote, Panasonic's national marketing manager for Telephone Products. For $500, you can set up a system with five extensions.

Panasonic also offers five answering machines with remote room-monitoring capability ($90 to $220). You can call up from outside the home to hear what's going on in a room, but at this time the device can't be set up as a room monitor from another room.

Most often, the biggest problem with intercom units lies with the homeowner, Ferrell said. Many don't learn to operate the unit properly, and they think the system is broken, when the problem is their own lack of training. Such crises are typically resolved with a phone call to the dealer.

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